Smithsonian Official Quits After Records Destroyed

Lawrence M. Small, in a 1999 photo, is one of the Smithsonian secretaries that Executive Assistant James M. Hobbins served during 40 years of work.
Lawrence M. Small, in a 1999 photo, is one of the Smithsonian secretaries that Executive Assistant James M. Hobbins served during 40 years of work. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A top Smithsonian official has resigned after he destroyed records from a key Smithsonian Board of Regents meeting.

James M. Hobbins, 64, executive assistant to the secretary of the Smithsonian, has acknowledged destroying transcripts from a meeting in January when regents discussed then-Secretary Lawrence M. Small's compensation, housing allowance and travel expenses among other things, according to people who insisted on remaining anonymous because of the sensitivity of the case.

The sources said the documents were destroyed after Smithsonian General Counsel John Huerta sent a memo to employees in March to retain documents. The directive came after the Senate Finance Committee began investigating the Smithsonian in early February and an independent review committee established by the regents later that month specifically requested the minutes and other records from meetings.

"I can't comment on this particular case," Huerta said, "but copies have been preserved. A complete set was provided to the independent review committee" that investigated alleged abuses at the institution.

Hobbins declined requests for an interview. His attorney, Thomas Sawyer, said the transcripts were "transitional documents. They were intended for the purpose of assisting in the preparation of minutes of the board meeting.

"Jim regrets the current situation with respect to the Smithsonian," Sawyer said. "That's why he voluntarily stepped down after 40 years, and his deep personal commitment to the institution will continue. He's resigned because he is putting the interests of the Smithsonian first." The transcript of the January meeting included discussion about how to respond to a confidential report from the Smithsonian Inspector General's Office that Small had run up nearly $90,000 in unauthorized expenses from 2000 to 2005, minutes obtained by The Post show.

At the meeting, the regents retroactively approved spending for Small's air travel, car service, gifts and his wife's unauthorized trip to Cambodia. The regents also retroactively approved an unauthorized bonus Small had awarded to Hobbins.

Sawyer said it was standard procedure for Hobbins to destroy the transcripts after minutes of the meeting were compiled. "This is a practice that has been regularly followed since the middle 1980s."

A court reporter's service has been used over the years to transcribe regents' meetings. The transcripts were used to compile the minutes. Neither the minutes nor the transcripts are made public.

Smithsonian officials said they would not discuss personnel matters. Officials who asked not to be named said that because of his years of service, Hobbins was permitted to retire.

"Jim Hobbins is a great guy -- as dedicated to the Smithsonian as anyone I've ever met," said Roger Sant, chairman of the regents' executive committee. "His record over 40 years was filled with acts of complete devotion to the institution and the people he served. He never shunned a task, regardless of the time of day or his personal circumstances. He loved the place and we already miss him greatly."

Destroying documents requested by congressional investigators could be a crime, depending on the circumstances, but Huerta and Smithsonian Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan declined to say whether the matter was being investigated.

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